All you need to know about adaptogens

Adaptogens are also referred to as adaptogenic substances, they are used in medicine for the promotion of homeostasis and to stabilize physiological processes. The concept of adaptogens was first brought to bear in 1947, when it was described as a substance that may help to resist stress. Before an herb can be referred to as an adaptogen, it must be nonspecific, nontoxic and must be able to affect the physiology of the organism.

Most of the past studies that have been conducted on adaptogens were carried out in China, Korea, and in the Soviet Union. Most of these studies were carried out in the 70s and the results have been discarded as the term adaptogen was not accepted in physiological, pharmacological, or mainstream clinical practices in European countries. The United States also issued a warning concerning adaptogens in 2013 to a Washington-based company through its Food and Drug Administration agency.

The major benefit that is popularly attributed to adaptogens is their ability to counteract the effects of stress in the human body. Almost everybody undergoes one form of stress or the other as a result of carrying out different daily activities. Stress is responsible for major physical changes in the body, this may include adversely affecting the neurological, immune, and endocrine systems. Adaptogens have the needed stimulant to combat the harmful effects stress poses on the body.

How Adaptogens Work

Adaptogens work at a molecular level in order to regulate and ensure balance in the pituitary, hypothalamic, and adrenal glands. All these organs are responsible for how the body responds to stress. These organs hack the stress response in the body, our body responds to stress in three stages, they are;

  • The alarm phase
  • The resistance phase, and
  • Exhaustion phase

When the body sense any form of stress as it is being put through one rigorous exercise or the other, it responds by kicking out hormones such as adrenaline that helps to improve muscle performance, and increases our ability to pay attention and concentrate on the task at hand in the resistance phase. By doing this, the body is trying to resist the stressor, s that we can feel clearer and energized thus there is a kind of boost that fights the stressor.
As the exercise or active continue, fatigue sets in, and this time we are in the exhaustion phase. What adaptogens do is that they stretch out the sweet spot in the middle so that we can be allowed to hang on in the more demanding part of the activity or exercise; this stage is known as the resistance phase.
Several researches and studies have been carried out concerning adaptogens in both isolated neuronal cells and animals. It was discovered from these researches that adaptogens affects have the following effects on the human body;

  • They act as stimulant for the central nervous system
  • They have antidepressant effects on the body
  • They serve as anti-fatigue
  • They are neuroprotective elements

Research has also shown that adaptogens help to enhance attention, improve mental work capacity, prevents fatigue and stress.
Research into adaptogens focus on four areas;

  • Molecular and Biochemistry Biology: Mechanisms of stress protective activity of adaptogens on cellular and molecular levels.
  • Phytochemistry: Structure elucidation and isolation of active constituents of adaptogenic plants.
  • Clinical and Pharmacology: Safety and efficacy of adaptogens in stress related disorders on humans and animals.
  • Pharmaceutical development of herbal products/preparations that have established medicinal use in evidence based medicine.

Most of these researches show that certain adaptogenic substances are capable of activating the protective mechanism of cells, which is connected to the ability to increase survival rates in in vivo and in vitro. Majority of the studies have directed at the regulation of molecular chaperons like Hsp70 and other key stress mediators.

Adaptogenic Herbs

There are three main adaptogenic herbs that have been found to be nontoxic and safe according to study, they are; Schisandra chinensis, Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng), and Rhodiola rosea (Arctic root).

  • Schisandra: Schisandra herb acts as an adaptogen that helps to stabilize blood sugar levels, and it also helps to keep the liver healthy.
  • Siberian Ginseng: It works in a similar way to ginseng, it is capable of combating depression, fatigue, and stress according to studies.
  • Artic Root: The artic root is also known as “rose root”, it is grown in cold climates such as Europe and Asia. It is used in the Scandinavia and Russia to treat ailments such as flu and headaches.

How Beneficial Are Adaptogen Herbs

Studies have shown that adaptogens can really help to promote healthy living when used as a supplement with other traditional medications for different health problems. They are known to help people with neurological disorders that may arise as a result of old age, cardiovascular health issues.

In general, adaptogen herbs are associated with boosting mental health for people with different health conditions. For example, a study showed that arctic root helps in boosting productivity and activity when it used together with antidepressants and it has no side effects in the process. It can also help to speed up recovery after illnesses such as flu.

Schisandra was discovered to be the most helpful of all the adaptogen herbs. It was seen that it can help people with exhaustion and low mental and physical performance, it can also be helpful in certain neurological disorders, mental disorders such as schizophrenia, and it improves lung function.

Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System (CNS)

Initially, adaptogens were considered to be substances that enhance the state of nonspecific resistance in stress, a physiological condition that is connected with several disorders of the neuroendocrine-immune system. However, studies on isolated neuronal and animals have showed that adaptogens exhibit anti-fatigue, neuroprotective, nootropic, anxiolytic, antidepressive, and CNS stimulating activity.

A couple of clinical trials also demonstrated that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect that helps to increase mental work capacity against a background of fatigue and stress, especially in tolerance to enhanced attention and mental exhaustion.

Recent pharmacological studies have also shown that a few adaptogens have provided a rationale for these effects at molecular level as it was discovered that stress-protective activity of adaptogens was linked to the regulation of homeostasis through several mechanism of action. This was also linked with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the regulation of important mediators of stress response such as stress activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase 1 (JNK1), cortisol, nitric oxide, and Forkhead box O transcription factor DAF-16.

Active Compounds

Adaptogens are chemical compounds that are either tetracyclic or phenolic steroids. The phenolic compounds are phenylpropanoids and phenythalene derivatives like rosavin, salidroside (rhodioloside), triandrin, lignans like eleutheros, syringing, and schisandrin B. Structurally, they are similar to the catecholamines known as the mediators of sympathoadrenal system (SAS) involved in the activation of the stress system in the early stages of stress response.

Salidroside and rosea extracts was found to possess neuroprotective activity which helps to reduce stress induced impairments and disorders related to the immune and neuro-endocrine system through;

  • Stimulation of the Central Nervous System
  • Protection of cultured neuronal cells from glutamate induced injuries and sodium azide.
  • The effect of anti-neuronal apoptosis that is connected to its function of reducing intracellular free calcium concentration.
  • Blockage of Hydrogen Peroxide –induced apoptosis in rat neuronal PC12 cells.
  • Protection from oxidative damage during fatigue.
  • Stimulation of glucose uptake in skeletal muscle cells by activating phosphorylation of AMO-activated protein kinase.

A couple of these findings might raise the possibility of potential therapeutic applications of salidroside in treating and preventing cerebral neurodegenerative and ischemic diseases.

The Best Adaptogen Herbs

Each adaptogens perform different functions depending on what ailments they are needed to for. A few adaptogens and what they are used for is as follows;

  • Adaptogens for Anxiety and Acute Stress: Eleutherococcus senticosus also known as Siberian ginseng, schisandra, and rhodiola can help to mediate or fight stress responses. People also use ginseng to boost the immune system, sexual health, and physical stamina while rhodiola is said to help boost energy, memory, and physical performance. Schisandra, on the other hand is believed to help improve liver function and treat gastrointestinal problems. Although, there are still much more researches still being carried out to fully back up these benefits in human.
  • Adaptogens for Stress: Asian ginseng and Ashwagandha are recommended by medical experts to soothe hormone imbalance, and long term sources of stress while research has also suggested that tulsi or holy basil may help to reduce stress levels.
  • Adaptogens for Immune Health: Ginseng and Reishi have been discovered to boost immunity.

Adaptogen Supplements

Certain adaptogens can be taken as capsules but be sure that they do not contain other substances. Hence, it is advisable to consult a medical expert before taking any adaptogen as a lot of the supplements out there are under-regulated and as such could pose some kinds of adverse effects.

How to Add Adaptogens to your Diets

You can sip adaptogen teas, and to add it to your food, you can buy pre-mixed powder to spice up your salad dressings or soup or you can combine tinctures with water.

When to Take Adaptogens

There is no particular time to take adaptogens, it all depends on you and what is recommended by your doctor. You have to study yourself and know what suits your well-being as what is good for you might not be good for someone else.
It should be noted that adaptogens are not sedatives or stimulants, they are substances that need to be taken over a period of time. However, a rule of thumb is to take adaptogens that are stimulating during the day while the ones that are more calm and gentle can be taken at night just before going to bed.
Some adaptogens are calming, nourishing, while some can be energizing; when and how you take them depends on which one you are taking and what works best for you.

Who Should not take Adaptogens?

This is actually up to you and what your doctor recommends, especially if you are breastfeeding or pregnant, or if you are taking any kind of prescription medications that may interfere with adaptogens.

Top 7 Adaptogens

  1. Amla: Amla is also known as Indian gooseberry or amalaki, it is a common Ayurvedic tonic that is rich in Vitamin C and other antioxidants. It is believed to prolong life, good memory, and youthfulness. It also helps the body to build enough resistance to diseases, restores appetite, nourishes the blood, promotes healthy liver and bones.
  2. Ashwagandha: It is a soothing nervine that can help prevent fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia as a result of stress. It enhances endocrine function it is used in Ayurvedic formulas that can help to boost vitality and fertility in men.
  3. Cordyceps: It is used to treat infertility, dizziness, sexual dysfunction, and to support kidney health.
  4. Eleuthero: Eleuthero is suitable for long-term use and it can be used by both men and women for several purposes. It offers cognitive support, boosts the immune system, it supports healthy cholesterol, and can help to relieve stress.
  5. Holy Basil: Holy Basil is seen as one of the best and potent herbs in India. It can be used as a tonic, it eases vomiting and stomach upsets, supports memory, helps to recover fromtrauma, and it is also used to treat depression.
  6. Maca: It is a root vegetable that is grown in Peru, and it is considered to be an adaptogen. It is used to boost libido in men and women.
  7. Rhodiola: This is a succulent that is grown in Russia, Canada, Scandinavian countries. It is used as an antidepressant, it helps to boost the immune system, increases fertility in men and women, and it also increases physical endurance and mental stamina.

What side effects are Associated with Adaptogens?

It is recommended that you should talk to your doctor before introducing adaptogens into your routine or diet. Certain adaptogens have been found to negatively interact with prescription medications and your doctors might not be aware of other over-the-counter drugs and supplements you may be taking. Hence, you need to put your doctor in the know so that you can be appropriately directed on what to take and what you cannot take whenever you decide to take adaptogen supplements.

So far, there has been little or no evidences to show that adaptogens can have any kind of health complications or side effects. Although, certain persons might feel some kind of allergy to adaptogens which may cause gastrointestinal problems for these people. However, it must be said here that there has been few long-term research on adaptogens’ effects on the human body.